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  • Writer's pictureCristina Dwyer

G’day Australia!

Updated: Feb 26

Ever experienced a mini miracle that had you yelling with pure excitement? Like that time when you desperately tried to find a spot in a “Lot full” parking and, while circling the place and muttering “There's got to be a spot for me!”, and here it was, YESSSSS!


Now, imagine that level of joy but at a larger scale – that was me snagging the chance to visit Australia. In the summer of 2022, Eddie had to attend a work conference in Sydney, and guess who jumped on the adventure wagon? Yours truly. Once the work stuff was done, we turned it into an extended stay. Australia had been on my bucket list forever, but it always felt just out of reach – too far away, not enough vacation time. This trip wasn't just about ticking off tourist spots. Way back, a coin flip nearly made Australia my home instead of Canada and, now and then, I would think of the what ifs! Plus, there was the added excitement of finally meeting in person Danae and Mark, Eddie's Aussie friends. They were the cherry on top of this Down Under treat!


We departed in summer and arrived in full winter! When we touched down in Sydney, it was rainy and windy, apparently much colder than usual. With the maximum temperature barely hitting 10°C (feeling 7°C) I had to do some emergency shopping at Zara which concluded with the acquisition of my “Australian tartan” coat, which I still wear it nowadays more out of affection; its oversize cut and technicolour pattern, are possibly trendy but quite not my style.


On the first day, while Eddie was busy with his work gig, I was busy hitting the streets of the city. I and my friend Vee, whose husband was in the same engagement as Eddie, joined a guided walking tour that would take us along the streets of the old city centre.

From the very beginning, a strange déjà vu struck me: the weather reminded me of Vancouver and the architecture reminded me of Europe. It was my first time in Sydney, yet it felt familiar.


It was just an impression though, there was lots I had yet to discover. Step by step, the city’s history book opened for us, one page at a time.


Queen Victoria Building (QVB), built in the 1800’s, was meant to be a marketplace. The impressive building, stretching over a block, looked rather stoic outside but was very vibrant inside, thanks to the chic and modern boutiques that make it a popular shopping destination.


St James Church

St. James Church, consecrated in 1824,

had the convict population as its original ministry, and throughout the following years continued to serve the city’s poorest.

With a simple design and somehow austere look, the oldest building in Sydney’s inner city defies the passage of time and neighbouring skyscrapers, standing faithful to its mission.


The Hyde Barracks were designed by a convict architect, Francis Greenway, at the request of Governor Macquarie. The building was initially a dormitory for the convicts that were roaming the streets of the city and aimed to keep them away from causing trouble.

Hyde Barracks on the left

Later, its purpose changed a few times, into being a punishment place for convicts, a hospital, a mint and even law court. Today, it serves as a living museum, being listed under the UNESCO World Heritage List as one of the 11 pre-eminent Australian Convict Sites.



Sydney Hospital, built in the early 1800’s, by convicts, for convicts, is the oldest hospital in Australia and, despite its rather dormant façade, is still fully operational. The hospital doesn’t stand out by the architecture of its three old colonial buildings, but rather through the way it came to existence. When the British Government refused to fund the hospital, Governor Macquarie got entrepreneurial and outsourced the development to a group of businessmen in exchange for monopoly on rum imports and free convict labour. This, in turn, prompted people to call it the “Rum Hospital”.


Hyde Park, surprisingly lush and colourful for wintertime, is home to impressive trees and manicured lawns. Its present name, inspired by London’s Hyde Park, was bestowed by the same Governor Macquarie, whose contribution is commemorated by a plaque and statue placed at one of the park entrances. As I looked at the, I realized that his name was coming up often in our tour.  “Busy man, huh? ”, I reflected, amused, trying to picture him juggling his projects on an 1800’s stage set. Likewise, the name “Elizabeth” made frequent appearance, as street names or statues. I initially thought it would be a nod to the queen but turned out it was a tribute to his wife, Elizabeth. Thank goodness for our guide’s enlightening tidbits!


Nestled within the park is St. Mary’s Cathedral, a Roman Catholic Church serving as the seat of the Archbishop of Sydney. Beyond its religious significance, the cathedral holds a special place in Australia's Catholic history, standing on the oldest Catholic site in the country. The initial St. Mary's Cathedral succumbed to fire, leading to the construction of the current building. Crafted from local sandstone, it stands as the longest cathedral in Australia and the largest 19th century ecclesiastical building in English Gothic style. While our visit allowed only an appreciation of its external grandeur—the rose windows, intricate stone carvings, and towering twin spires—I hope of returning one day to explore its renown interior.


Martin Place, a wide pedestrian mall, was by far the most impressive of all places we’ve passed by. By the time we got here, the sky started to clear, as if it was preparing to show us the “civic heart” of the city in its full splendour. I was walking down the street, but looking up all the time, not being able to take my eyes off the impressive colonial buildings that dominated the street: the Commonwealth Trading Bank of Australia, the Challis House, the General Post Office (GPO).

The GPO, completed in 1891, is still one of the largest sandstone buildings in Sydney. It took 25 years, multiple stages, and a fair load of opinionated discussions around its avant-garde design and realistic style of the decorative sculptures. It’s magnificent clock tower, hailed for its height, had to be dismantled during the Second World War, a preventive measure in case of an air attack.

Martin Place also hosts the solemn Sydney Cenotaph monument, a tribute to Australians who sacrificed their lives in wars. Today, it remains the focal point for Sydney’s Anzac and Armistice Day (Remembrance Day) ceremonies. Standing before this poignant reminder, our guide shared stories of Australian troops who volunteered during the First World War, engaging in battles across Europe and the Middle East. The enormity of the casualties and sacrifices hit me. I felt a sense of guilt and humbleness; I had some knowledge, but not nearly enough understanding.


As our tour concluded the old city centre walk, we were about to bid farewell to Martin Place. I turned around for one last gaze. The venerable buildings, imposing and serene, akin to wise elders, bore witness to an intricate tapestry of suffering and grandeur, silently urging us to reflect on the past and embrace hope for the future. The wet pavement shined under the post-rain light, and the sun gently warmed my face. In that moment, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for being in that place at that time.

 

Our final stop brought us to the southern tip of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the iconic Rocks area. The bridge, alongside the Sydney Opera House sharing the same harbour, have become the most iconic image of Sydney, if not all of Australia.

Taking inspiration from New York's Hell Gate Bridge and officially opened in 1932, this bridge stands tall as the world's highest arch bridge, an embodiment of elegant and robust engineering. However, a curious fact: those impressive concrete and granite pylons standing guard at the endpoints, while adding to the bridge's aesthetic grandeur, hold no structural significance. They were later added to alleviate public concerns about the bridge's safety, proving that even engineering marvels need a touch of reassurance.


The bridge and harbour views were magnificent, tempting us to linger a bit longer in the area. Besides, I and Vee worked out a bit of appetite after our morning stroll. After a short check of the restaurants in the area, we decided to have lunch at Luna, an Asian fusion restaurant, offering an excellent view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House. A picture-perfect setting! And the culinary experience matched the aesthetics! My desire to eat local let me to order the crispy caramelized Australian beef ribs. No bones in this dish, just succulent pulled-out meet, plated in bite-sized pieces that practically literally melted in my mouth. The caramelized onions on top, sweet sauce, and a hint of hot pepper created a delightful symphony of flavours. 

Yet, despite my best intentions to stick to local fare, the allure of Hokkaido Scallops proved irresistible. And they didn't disappoint: cured, slightly chewy scallops with a lightly sweet dressing, topped with salty salmon roe and crispy fungus that seemed to have just fallen onto the scallops. Edible flowers added a dash of colour, completing the dish's exquisite presentation. Shortly after settling in, we were joined by an Irish lady who recognized us from the tour. Our chat flowed joyfully and so did some some wine I indulged in—unusual for lunch but undoubtedly hitting the spot.


After lunch, Vee and I took to the narrow streets of The Rocks for a leisurely afternoon. Once known for its less-than-savoury reputation, this neighborhood has transformed into a hotspot for tourists and locals alike. Here, some of Sydney's oldest pubs stand alongside artisan fashion boutiques, museums, and cafes, blending the city's history with the contemporary spirit.


I didn’t get to cross the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but throughout our stay in Sydney I did get to see close the Sydney Opera House, both outside and inside, daytime and nighttime. It took a lot of drama to build this drama house, but the result is indeed spectacular. We were a bit disappointed that we couldn’t circumnavigate it, access being limited only the inland facing side.

 

We made up though by attending a magnificent production of La Traviata by Verdi. We dressed to the nines and, to make it a full red-carpet event, we started our evening with an overture dinner, a delightful performance on its own. It was the first time in three years since being in a theatre, and I was simply ecstatic to be able to see a masterpiece production, in an iconic building and also share this moment with our friends, Vee and Ray.


One cannot come to Sydney and skip the Bondi Beach! In Vancouver we know Australians more from the ski slopes, but it is surfing that almost seems to come as second nature to them.

The beach was almost empty in the afternoon we went by, just a few surfers were getting ready to hit the waves. The relaxed atmosphere was going out like a tide in the neighbouring streets: seemingly ran down buildings whose residents seemed more interested in living the life than carpentry, graffiti art, laid back cafes, surf paraphernalia shops. I could only imagine how this place would look and feel like when surfing is in full season.


Once Eddie’s conference concluded, we said goodbye to Sydney for a few days. Danae and Mark picked us up from the hotel and took us in full custody: for the next five days we were going to be chauffeured, fed, bundled in warm clothes, and taken off the touristy path and get infused with some authentic Australian spirit.  

 

Whenever I looked at Australia’s map, I mainly saw the desert and my imagination always pictured Australia in beige tones, colour of the sand, dry and flat, quite boring I may say. While it is a fact that there are three deserts in Australia which cover most of continent, there’s more than that to Australia, which I was going to find out firsthand and which turned out to be anything but boring.


We stayed at a countryside property near Berry. One morning I woke up earlier, stepped outside and took a deep breath of the fresh air. It rained over night and there were still some water drops on the leaves and branches. The hills were breathing out a cloud of mist that softly covered the trees and the grass. The sun was still rising, leaving behind splashes of colour that brightened the horizon. I opened my eye wide, thinking “Is this real? Am I really in Australia?”.   

Later, birds started showing up, thankfully, they were not afraid of us, and got on with their daily routine. I felt I was in a bird sanctuary – some I could see, very colourful,  grazing around the pond or indulging from the bird feeder, some I could only hear; even today I remember the laughing kookaburra so distinct and hilarious.


One morning we put on the gum boots to go for a walk across the rolling hills and muddy trails. It didn’t take long to see the wild kangaroos in the distance. I cannot describe my excitement at the time, I could not believe I could see them in the wild, yet so close to inhabited places. They do get spooked a lot quicker than I imagined and they are quite well organized: one of them is on the watch, while the rest of the flock is grazing; if you move a bit, they see you from very far away and give the alarm and, in no time, they are all hopping away.


We did have the chance to get closer to the kangaroos at the Shoalhaven Zoo. They were smaller than the ones I had seen in the wild, and didn’t mind being pet or getting fed, with irresistible big eyes and long eyelashes.


At the same zoo I got to see the koalas, which were on my must-see list from day one. There’s was something in the demeanor of a koala that instantly made me smile. If seemed as if they posed all the time, with a staring look, a bit curious, a bit cheeky, framed by those unmistakable fluffy ears. They were moving slowly but did pull some acrobatic motions and stances, with a firm grasp on the trees! To top it off, thanks to their eucalyptus diet, they smelled as if they had just come out from a spa, which was a total surprise for me. Even though we did enter the area where all the koalas were hanging out, we were only allowed to get close and pet the one that was on tourist greetings duty. While he was trained to be comfortable near people, we were not trained to handle him and his big claws, so he was hanging out on a stump and we hanged out around him.


While koalas and kangaroos have become a symbol of Australia, there is another native animal that is less known to the world and is worthy of sharing the celebrity stage: the wombat!  I have first learned about it from Danae, as we were driving during the night on an unlit road, and they were paying extra care watching for wombats crossing the road. They live in burrows, and their love for digging and need for space, didn’t make them popular with farmers back in the day. Nowadays they are protected nation wide. We got to cuddle with a 16-year-old female wombat. I didn’t expect to fall so hard for this boulder of meat that was so docile and good sports, let herself carried around without protest.  This is one memory I can still feel in my lap today when I look back at the pictures. As you may guess, life in the wild is very different and is quite rare to even spot them during daytime.


We rounded up our Aussie wildlife tour at the zoo seeing an impressive number of birds species, feeding tiny and cute creature with a tail, whose breed I cannot recall, measuring up a “smiling” crocodile, and putting on a reptile broch.


While I liked tuning into Sydney’s buzz, I also loved the homey, welcoming feel of the small towns we visited.


If you ever are in the Beaumont region, you must visit the Kangaroo Valley town and its surroundings.

A place where arts and good food seemed to have made a good home together, where antique stores packed with old treasures and magazines took me back in time, and buildings with old, maybe original firms, made make me feel like in a movie set. There were also the eclectic stores with eccentric owners with novel worthy life stories; the lady from whom I bought a shawl was also breeding Arabic horses and her husband, a former formula one car racer, turned into a pigeon breeder after an accident. There were also many craft stores that use the local elements to create beautiful and practical pieces, some that I saw for the first time, like the banksia see pod aroma diffusers.

We had brunch at “The General Cafe”, a local favourite, in a very cozy atmosphere, with a country vibe given by the furniture and antique decorations, and a colonial posh infused by the fine chinaware. We got to meet one of the owners and master bread maker, Mrs. Bread (yeap, that is her real name), and taste her amazing home-made sourdough bread. Delicious!


Not far from Kangaroo Valley, the viewpoint on top of Cambewarra Mountain is definitely worth a drive or hike up. We drove, a safer and faster alternative in wintertime and after rain. By the time we arrived, the heavy clouds were gathered like a thick white blanket that was lifting as if it wanted us to see the beauty of the valley in its entirety. I felt as if I were in front of a painting.

We warmed up with a cup of tea or coffee served in fine chinaware, at the quaint, century old Lookout Café, a favourite spot for people and birds alike. The bird feeders placed on the outdoor patio were ready to welcome the colourful and chatty neighbours, which we could hear when we were walking outside.


We got the chance to check out a few other small towns.

In Ulladula we enjoyed a delicious

and healthy breakfast on the patio of the Tree House café, thanks to the sudden summerly temperatures.



In Nowra, the sea proximity was abundantly reflected in the fresh seafood shop, while the Farmers Market, fully stacked, seemed to have been arranged to be perfectly colour coordinated.




But that wasn’t all, there was another surprise waiting for us: the Mollymook beaches! It was a sunny, late morning when Danae and Mark took us to some of the secluded beaches in the area. There were very few people out, so we had them almost exclusively to ourselves!

It was still winter, yet I was now walking bare feet in the wet, lukewarm sand and taking layers off. I dipped my toes in the South Pacific Ocean for the first time in my life and I sensed, again, a homey feel: the calm, endless, green-blue water, with just a few waves to decorate it, like strings of pearls, the salty air filling my lungs, the sun giving me a warm embrace. It reminded me of the Canadian West Coast.



Our Australian trip started and ended in Sydney and, just like a sandwich, the best part was in the middle and that came to an end.


After finishing our south coast tour, we spent two more nights in Cronulla, a beautiful ocean side residential suburb of Sydney.


Being on a roll for first-time experiences, I wanted to go whale watching. I had high hopes given that it was the whale watching season, however, seems that the whales didn’t get the memo and they didn’t show up. I saw lots of water and cliffs, while Eddie, sea-sick beyond belief, mainly saw the boat deck.


We made up in wildlife watching later while

we were walking near the harbour and ran into a flock of white cockatoos having a feast in a park.






We couldn’t leave Sydney without taking a good look at it from the top of the Sydney Tower Eye, the highest structure in the city. Afterwards, we decided to go for a last stroll, simply following our curiosity and let the streets guide us - old city centre, new shopping areas, Pitt Street.